by Imogen Harris
"Francis?" Janice hitched up the folder in her arms, and pushed the door open with her shoulder. "It's only me. Time to rise and shine."
She stepped into the hall and pulled the door behind her. Why did this house always smell? Francis had care-workers who cleared the fridge, washed the dishes and hoovered the thin carpet, but somehow a wet stink seemed to permeate, unplaceable. It was like sour milk, or the liquid that collects between bag and bin. Janice had a sudden flash of Francis deliberately hiding something rancid somewhere around the flat, his pouchy, greying face set into the gleeful leer she had seen so often. Although he always insisted on leaning on her arm to shuffle from room to room, and she was familiar with his moist weight against her chest when helping him stand, she knew that he could move with surety when he wanted to.
Francis was not popular. He always seemed to fall out with or offend his key-workers and had an uncanny knack for finding the most powerful way to cause annoyance. A care assistant with a mixed race son was forced to hear him discussing articles he had 'read somewhere' about how mixed race children were more prone to mental health problems and crime. She never mentioned her son, and it could have just been coincidence. How would he have found out? A gay colleague would be invited to discuss Freddy Mercury, Rock Hudson and Liberace. If the colleague had complained, Janice could imagine Francis claiming complete innocence. “Had no idea you were one of them” he would say, malice stirring in his eyes. “No offence meant. Horrible way to go though, it must have been for them. That Nureyev too.” Instead, her colleague had become yet another care-worker to request Francis be taken off their round.
Janice had always said that Francis didn't bother her, but in truth it had become a battle between them. Unprofessional, yes, and she had never, she told herself, overstepped the boundaries of proper care, but she found herself unreasonably delighted when she was able to briskly dismiss a remark designed to wound her, or even see a flash of annoyance in his eyes when she refused to rise to the bait.
"Francis? Where are you?" She kept her voice bright as she climbed the stairs. He did not call out, but she was sure she could hear his breathing huffing out onto the landing through the half open door of his bedroom.
"There you are. How are we this morning?" Janice entered the room and stood by the bed. Francis was a humped shape under the sheet and blanket. The home care team had bought him a new mattress, pillow and duvet set, but he claimed to prefer his heavy blankets and layers of sheets, all of which seemed to require far more straightening and tucking than the cheery quilt. Perhaps that was why he preferred them? You are just being petty, she told herself. Francis just wanted what he was used to, she could surely understand that.
The blanketed hump stirred, then a hand shot out from the side of the bed and groped, finding the inside of her knee with its curled fingers. Janice jumped but did not pull away. She had learned a long time ago to always wear trousers to this appointment.
"Come on, now."
The hump stirred feebly. Trying not to shrink away, she leant over and turned the blankets down to reveal Francis' face. He groaned gently and rolled onto his back, his arms seeming to work beneath the covers.
Janice was used to all sorts of behaviour from her patients, especially those who might be described euphemistically as 'confused'. But she had to continually push aside the thought that there was nothing confused about Francis McGuigan.
She stepped away from the bed and firmly pulled back the curtains. The man in the bed blinked irritably and spoke, his voice a low rattle.
"It's seven-oh-five." Janice said. "Let's get you up and washed."
A sponge bath was the last thing she felt like doing for Francis, and she hesitated, wondering if he would be all right if left another day. That is not acceptable she told herself. You should care for him as you would like someone to care for you. How would you feel if someone couldn't be bothered to make sure you were clean?
Francis chuckled, a repulsive rattle in the back of his throat. "Make sure you do my cock this time. Right under the rim."
Janice froze. Francis had never, ever spoken to her like this before. He did not seem either abashed or casual. Instead his words hung in the air between then, a challenge, a test. What are you going to do?
"Francis," she said at last, "Please don't talk to me like that."
"I will if I want. You can't do nothing about it."
"I can make a formal complaint to my supervisor."
"So what? If it's not you, it'll be some other bird. I can't stay here much longer, anyway."
And suddenly he began to make a noise; a frightening, gurgling, gasping noise. Janice realised after a few seconds that, unbelievably, Francis was crying. If possible, it made him even more unpleasant. After a moment, she forced herself to lay a hand on his arm.
"Francis, what's wrong? Can you tell me about it?"
He continued to shudder for a few seconds, then said, "They reckon they're moving me to a home. The council. One of them other bitches must've complained, and now they say my 'needs can be managed more effectively in a residential setting'. Fucking joke.”
Despite herself, Janice felt a wave of relief. Francis would be better off in a home. Or at least, she would be better off without him on her rounds.
“But I can't go into one of those places. Have you fucking seen them?”
Janice had. She was familiar with Dunbarton House, the local residential care home. An enormous, redbrick complex, she remembered the overpowering heat, the smell of medication and sick, decaying bodies, the large dayrooms crammed with high backed armchairs. She remembered telling herself that she would never let herself end up there.
Everyone, Janice thought, always says they won't. They think that they will somehow, miraculously escape, through sudden, vast wealth or relatives who inexplicably insist on taking them in. Janice had no children, and friends who did had occasionally mentioned that at least they would have someone to visit them in their nursing home. Although she never corrected them, Janice knew that most of the lonely and confused residents of Dunbarton had children. They had all had lives and families, and friends who loved them, and none of this had been prophylactic against their eventual fate.
“They showed me a brochure. Said there were all sorts of activities I could do, friends waiting for me. It's a load of crap. Once you go in one of those places, you don't come out.”
Janice imagined knowing that the bed she slept in would be where she would die, that the walls would be the last she would ever see. She imagined knowing that she would never again walk out through the front door and into the fresh air.
“I'd rather be dead. I want to die here, in my own home. Not in one of those places.”
Janice remembered the sensation of relief she had always experienced when she left Dunbarton, the fleeting panic that the door would not open and she would remain trapped forever. She too had thought to herself that the residents would be better off dead than continue to shuffle through the same day, over and over again.
“They'll make me go.” Francis' voice was rising, he sounded like a little boy. Janice, for the first time ever in her interactions with him, felt a twist of pity. He was frightened, she saw, terrified and pathetic and alone.
“It'll be OK,” she said. “They do all sorts of fun things there. You'll have a great time.” Her voice was unconvincing in her own ears.
“You don't care. You don't give a shit. One less person to worry about, that's all it means for you.”
“I do care,” she protested. “Of course I care.”
“If you cared, you'd help me.”
Janice did not have to ask him what he meant. It was not the first time that she'd been asked this by a sick, frightened person, or even by a relative. She recognised at once the same careful testing tone of voice that presaged a request for enough pills to overdose, enough pain relief to switch off pain forever.
“I will help you,” she said firmly. “I'll help you with the paperwork, and with packing up your stuff and get you settled in. But that's all.”
“You could help me right now. I know you've got enough insulin in your bag.” His face was full of a cunning, desperate need. “You could just leave it here. I'd do it myself.”
“Francis, no. You must stop talking like this. Now, maybe you'd like a cup of tea first, just to calm you down, before we get you up for the day. How does that sound?”
Francis seemed to crumple, and she was afraid he would start crying again. But instead, in a voice that was almost unrecognisable, he politely said, “Thank you. That would be nice.”
Standing in Francis' kitchen, Janice waited for the kettle to boil. She knew that she ought to report this. She had to flag up any indications that a patient's mental health was declining, so that the appropriate care could be given. But what could a mental health key-worker possibly say to Francis to make him feel better? He was old, he was sick, he could no longer look after himself, and he had systematically harassed and bullied so many of his home visitors that she was one of few remaining who would work with him. If his mood was low, that was a logical response to the news that he would be going into a home. She – anyone – would have felt the same. He could tick all the boxes on the mood self-assessment form, he could be prescribed antidepressants and a weekly counselling session, he could be put on suicide watch, but none of that would change the simple fact: he was dying. Dying slowly and miserably, and now all he would have to stare at while he did so were the yellowing walls of an unfamiliar, impersonal institution.
Afterwards, Janice always told herself that she would have wanted someone to do for her what she did for Francis. That, after all, she did not give him the insulin pen, or instruct him how much to take. She simply left it, on the floor between the unit and the cooker, as if it had accidentally rolled out of her bag.
* * * *
“Thank you for coming in,” Marjorie only briefly met Janice's eyes as she entered her boss's office. “You know Victoria Morgan, of course. Please sit down.”
Janice would not exactly claim to “know” the head of human resources for her borough, but she smiled anyway and took the single seat on the other side of the desk.
“Now, as you are aware, Francis McGuigan was found to have passed on Tuesday the 16th. Your last appointment with him was on Monday 8th, a week prior to that date. Is that correct?”
“And would you say that you and he were close?”
Janice thought of Francis; his sly, pouchy face and surprisingly quick hands. “Not really. Not especially.”
“You were aware that he had a high turnover of care workers, but that you remained working with him for over eighteen months, is that right?”
“Were you also aware that he remembered you in his will?”
“He did what?” What would Francis have had to leave? His care was paid for by the state, it was impossible that he would be sitting on any money at all. Stocks, shares, investments, savings – these would all long ago have been swallowed up by the relentless march of care-workers and living support that Francis had received.
Marjorie slid a printed email from the pile of papers on her desk. “Mr McGuigan's lawyer contacted us to let us know that he had changed his will a few days before he died. Leaving his house and all its contents to you. Was this something you were aware of?”
“No, not at all – his house? Are you sure?”
“Were you also aware that Mr McGuigan was scheduled to be moved to a residential facility? In which case, after twelve weeks, the value of the house would be investigated as a possible source of revenue to defray ongoing costs?”
“He said – Dunbarton House. He never mentioned his home.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Yes, quite sure. What is this about?”
“When one of our clients dies, it is always a sad time. We have a duty to protect and care for every citizen who requires it. And we take it extremely seriously when one of our staff becomes a beneficiary in the will of an elderly, vulnerable person. When that person dies shortly afterwards, at a time when the asset in question is about to be directly threatened, I'm afraid we have no choice but to involve the police.”
Janice's head spun. She managed to say “The police?” but Marjorie's reply did not register. She thought instead about the insulin pen, missing from her stocks and not reported as lost. Francis's body would be taken apart, the true cause of his death discovered. She thought about the change to his will, made so recently. The house that Francis had never intended her to have. And she thought about his sly face, the thousand digs he had aimed at her, and to which she had so studiously avoided rising. He had, she realised, got her at last.